System Shock 2: OSA And the Many

Last time, I implied there's something deeply broken about OSA being a part of System Shock 2's story.

There's a number of relatively superficial issues I could bring up, such as how bizarrely out of place it is to tack psychic powers onto the System Shock 1 setting, but the crux of the problem is how this intersects with The Many and their position in the narrative.

See, if you're not familiar with System Shock 2's story, OSA is the future government's black ops government agents who have magic psychic powers. This includes such magical capabilities as the ability to set themselves on fire by thinking real hard, in the process making themselves immune to all heat-based damage, turning invisible to fleshy thinking beings but also inorganic security cameras and whatnot, and hurling cold-inducing blasts of death, but it also includes more traditionally psychic capabilities -if you pay attention to the OSA training choices and audio logs, it's made very clear that OSA is terrifying literal thought police who can do such skin-crawlingly creepy things as inserting themselves into a gang having psychically warped their mind so they don't remember who they really are and genuinely think they're the person they're pretending to be for the gang. Talk about deep cover.

On the flipside, The Many is the name for the Zerg-esque not-actually-alien-but-whatever hivemind that uses Zerg Larva-esque worms born from stolen-from-Aliens eggs that install themselves into the bodies of people to allow the hivemind to psychically control them. Also, there's more direct mind control alluded to in some audio logs, but I'll be coming back to that later. The point is The Many is more-or-less-it's-complicated the primary villain of the game, and that it's taken over the Von Braun and the Rickenbacker (The two ships that make up the majority of the gamespace) primarily through a subtle psychic infiltration of the crew.

Now, maybe you've already put 2 and 2 together to get 4, but if not, let me spell it out for you: how the hell did The Many infiltrate the ships when their crews include literal psychic thought police?

The optimistic among you might be assuming that the game provides a perfectly reasonable explanation for this factoid, but such optimism would, alas, be badly misplaced in this case. There is no explanation. In fact, whoever wrote this game seems to have noticed on some level that this makes no sense and, instead of fixing it, endeavored to minimize opportunities for you to think about the topic in hopes that players will utterly fail to notice how broken the story's premise is.

I'll be delving into this more later, but this is a recurring problem with the game's writing. Things happen, these things are utter nonsense, and the writer maybe notices but if they did they handle the situation by hoping you don't notice that they're churning out garbage.

Now, I'm starting with this particular bit of brokenness with the game's narrative because it's probably the single worst, most impossible for me to be sympathetic to decision in the entire game. It's self-evident just looking at the basic concepts of 'psychic black ops agents' and 'aliens whose infiltration is secret because it's psychic' that you cannot combine these without jumping through some serious hoops. This isn't something where the foundational decisions made sense, and the final manifestation oops doesn't add up.

In fact, let's provide a contrasting example.

In Sonic Adventure 1, there's a point in Knuckles' story where he spots Gamma and decides to follow him, which takes him to one of Robotnik's facilities. Now, this moment doesn't work, but the thing is it could have worked: it makes sense that Gamma might return to this particular facility at some point in time. It makes sense that Knuckles would respond to a robot he's never seen before as 'must be one of Robotnik's: let's try following it', as at this point in the franchise the video games had no examples of robots not made by Robotnik. It's just that, unfortunately, in Gamma's own story he never does return to that particular facility, and the story doesn't provide a moment of sufficient ambiguity lasting sufficiently long one can plausibly assume it happened 'off-screen'.

But, again: it could have made sense. It's only once you put Gamma's full story together with Knuckles' full story that you notice that there's no room for it to actually happen.

That's a reasonable mistake. Nobody involved in the development of Sonic Adventure had to be willfully stupid or painfully incompetent for this to happen.

System Shock 2's situation with OSA and The Many being fundamentally incompatible is not equivalent. It's not that the final form of the game has it nonsensical. It's that the decisions necessary to ever have a chance of leading to this point should never, ever have happened.

What's particularly frustrating is that the game, while seeming to hope you won't notice the problem, nonetheless continuously elects to shoot itself in the foot. If the player was able to pick to be an OSA Agent, but the entire rest of the game was conspicuously lacking in OSA Agents... I'd have made any number of reasonable assumptions. I might've assumed OSA isn't meant to really exist in-universe, and the OSA 'class' and your access to psychic powers is pure gameplay. I might've assumed OSA Agents are supposed to exist, but that there aren't any aside perhaps you on either ship -and hey, there's a lot of ways to explain why black ops literal thought police wouldn't have been sent on such a mission, and conversely the backstory for why you are on the ship would bypass these explanations. (I'll be getting to that in a later post, though)



You repeatedly find bodies with OSA Black Ops Psi Amps throughout the ship. The first one at the very beginning of the game could be waved off as a gameplay thing so that non-OSA characters can still use psychic powers they purchase, but there's far too many cases for it to be driven by a desire to ensure access to a Psi Amp. Even if this weren't true, there's multiple audio logs referencing OSA Agents as not only being a thing in general but being on these very ships. Two audio logs involve an OSA Agent investigating the strangely-smart and, it turns out, suddenly-psychic monkeys on the Von Braun. Another audio log involves a reference to an OSA Agent lobbing a Projected Pyrokinesis at a Hybrid and it 'just keeps coming'. (This has the bonus added nonsense value that this is just about mechanically impossible: a character with the minimum Psi score would one-shot all but Grenade Hybrids no matter what -difficulty doesn't modify your damage or enemy durability, so you can't explain this as 'Impossible represents the in-game reality'- and the audio log is heavily implying it's a Pipe Hybrid. Not to mention overcharging a Psi ability makes it even stronger, enough so that a Complete Garbage OSA Agent would still one-shot Grenade Hybrids!)

So OSA Agents definitely exist in-universe narratively. They definitely exist on these ships. And they definitely have the ability to investigate even non-human minds.

Nonetheless, the psychic literal thought police fail to notice The Many psychically dominating crew members, and the game conspicuously avoids engaging with the topic at all.

And the final, worst thing is, this is totally unnecessary, 100% avoidable. Even if I assume OSA exists primarily because the devs wanted a wizard class in their FPS RPG but wanted it sci-fi because their FPS RPG is sci-fi (Thus making the foundational stupidity vaguely sympathetic), there's no need for the game to handle The Many's initial infiltration as a psychic one. The game is already ripping off the Aliens franchise, and it's also already having XERXES (The AI that manages the ships) be in the game and an ally of The Many: why not complete the theft and have XERXES ally with The Many of his own volition, with that as the basis of The Many managing to sneakily take over the ship? And that's just one of numerous obvious ways to fix this issue while also making the plot more interesting than it currently is.

But no, the plot just... hopes you don't notice the giant gaping hole in its very foundations.


Next time, we turn our baleful attention to XERXES and all the problems he represents.

See you then.


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